And, We Have Gotten Used to It By Dan Rather, Reader Supported News 28 November 11

And, We Have Gotten Used to It

By Dan Rather, Reader Supported News
28 November 11
Reader Supported News | Perspective

On November 22, Dan Rather received the Committee to Protect Journalists' Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for 2011 at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City. What follows is the speech he gave upon accepting the prestigious award. -- JPS/RSN

One of Bud Benjamin's dreams was to expand the CBS Evening News to a full hour. And Bud wasn't thinking of filling it with helicopter shots, celebrity gossip and punditry. He imagined an entire hour brimming with investigative reporting, exposés and dispatches from around the world.

It was a different time in journalism. A time when professional duty was patriotic, and the freedom of the press motivated and inspired newsrooms. I know it is hard to believe - but it's true - newsrooms were not supposed to turn a profit. Frankly, news was considered an acceptable loss on the balance sheet.

To keep our FCC license and the public trust, we had to use the public's airwaves in the public interest. Yes, that's a whole lot of "public." But that's the way it was. It's the way it should be again.

Today, how we look and how we "present" information has become far more important than how we gather it. It's upside down and backwards. And, the worst part is ... we have gotten used to it.

The caretakers of the Fourth Estate have, at times, left the building unattended. Public interest be damned.

It was Thomas Jefferson who noted in 1799 that, "Our citizens may be deceived for awhile, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light."

Jefferson trusted the press - not to stir up heat, but to deliver insight.

Of course freedom of the press and of speech both come with pitfalls. People can peddle opinions as if they were facts. Those armed with the big, expensive megaphones drown out those blowing whistles.

But now, we see our fellow citizens taking to the streets. And, that my friends, is our cue to get back to work. As the People of our nation begin rising up, they expect the business of news to be about inquiry and accountability.

And, luckily for us, we can still do that ... but it may not be within the confines of big corporate media. As you know, we are living in an age when big money owns everything ... including the news.

That cash bought a lot of silence for a long time. Enough time for unchecked power to get this country tangled into messes all around the world. We all know that money talks. But, so do the people. They tire of conflicts at home and abroad ... conflicts that avert our eyes from the corruption and callowness that does little more than spill our blood and misspend our treasure.

"We had fed the heart on fantasies," wrote William Butler Yeats, "the heart's grown brutal from the fare."

In other words, we have gotten used to it.

What happens to a country when the press helps divide people into Us and Them? When it fans the flames of conflict and calls it reporting?

We need to restore, at some point, the teaching of the craft of journalism. The best way to protect journalists is to teach them how to do journalism and, therefore, protect themselves from becoming irrelevant.

I am reminded of the finest speech I ever heard on the subject of television journalism. It was given by Ed Murrow in 1958.

Murrow said, "This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But, it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends ... otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box."

Dear friends, we must untangle the wires from the lights. We must halt the steady decline of broadcast journalism and the endless compromises to the boardroom.

Some say it is too late. That Congress wrote our epitaph in 1996 when they all came together and passed the Telecommunications Deregulation Act. Since then, the lights in a box have gotten brighter and flashier ... but the truth dimmer and dimmer.

And ... we have gotten used to it.

The late, great Molly Ivins used to tell a story about what happens when fear grips a country. Molly liked to tell the story about her late friend, the celebrated Texas civil libertarian John Henry Faulk, who, as a boy of six, went with his seven-year-old friend, Boots Cooper, to rid the family henhouse of a harmless chicken snake. From its high perch, the boys found themselves eyeball to eyeball with the snake.

Growing up in Texas, it's not uncommon to see a chicken snake ... but being close enough to spit in the snake's eye must have been quite disconcerting.

As Molly would tell the story, the two boys ran out of the henhouse so fast they nearly tore off the henhouse door ... not to mention doing damage to themselves in the process. When Faulk's mother reminded the boys that chicken snakes are not dangerous, Boots Cooper responded, "Yes, ma'am, but some things will scare you so bad, you'll hurt yourself."

That is what we have been subject to as a country. We have been so afraid; so hell bent on destroying enemies ... both foreign and domestic ... we have hurt ourselves and our democracy.

You are probably asking yourself now what you should do.

Well, it may take courage.

There are so many wrongs to make right, it is going to get messier before it gets better.

We have to begin asking the hard questions once again.

We have to demand and earn back the respect that gave us the right to ask them.

We must protect whistleblowers by using our megaphones to make their risky admissions even louder.

We must demand access to all those risking their lives to challenge power.

We must refuse to simply read press releases and rely on official sources.

And we must begin to enforce our own professional code of ethics. Refuse to compromise. Going along to get along is getting us nowhere.

Tonight, if I can convince you of anything, it is to buck the current system. Remember anew that you are a public servant and your business is protecting the public from harm. Even if those doing harm also pay your salary.

To once again quote Ed Murrow, "There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference ... this weapon of television could be useful."

And wouldn't it be great if our country could get used to that.

On 9/11

Dan Rather asks the question "Is it possible that just a plane crash could have collapsed these buildings, or would have it required the sort of prior-positioning of explosives in the building, what do you think?"

Rather later makes this comment about the destruction of WTC7.

"Amazing incredible, pick your word, for the third time today, reminiscent of those pictures we've all seen too much on television before when a building was deliberately destroyed by well-placed dynamite to knock it down."

ABC reports: Anthrax cases have now shown up at all the major networks, as CBS reveals that a network employee in Dan Rather's office has the coetaneous form of the disease.

Rather's comments on 9/11 don't sound like they are part of the script. Maybe he was on the level that day. It would be nice if at least one father figure turned out to be one of the good guys.

An actor friend of mine is writing a play reenacting the CBS newsroom interviews on 9/11, staring Dan Rather. He is depicting Rather as one of the good guys. Does anyone have an opinion on Dan Rather? We would appreciate the input

"buck the system"

Yes that's excellent advice Dan Rather! Why don't you show us how it's done? Why don't you refute the official 9/11 myth? What have you got to lose? Why did you forsake us sir? America trusted you. You were there, but then you shut your mouth for 10 horrific years and now you want to tell the world what's wrong with journalism? Damn, you were at the wheel when TV news went in the ditch. Give me a break. That's my opinion of Dan Rather. (but it's never too late, make Murrow and Cronkite proud ... SPEAK UP NOW. )

Yes. he is a hypocrite

A lot of people in the media have said the same basic thing and then choke on the elephant in the room.

A good indicator of just how sick things really are.


'...chok[ing] on the elephant in the room'--that's the funniest mixed metaphor I've come across in a while! Reminds of the biblical verse about 'sqeezing out a gnat while swallowing a camel.' That would fit here too--getting all fretful about comparatively minor infractions, while letting huge crimes be carried out without saying a word.

Mawkish Screed

If you ask me this "commentary" by Dan Rather is a rather maudlin and mawkish screed. For one thing it is not very accurate. He says that news agencies lost money, which is true on a cost/benefit basis for the given time slot, but they made money by adding status, however ascribed, to the networks. Having news bureaus all over the world enhanced the overall cache of the networks. The news programs also act as feeders for viewers into the prime time block any given network. Despite "channel surfing" there is a strong tendency for viewers to stay put on any given channel. That is why the networks are willing to "lose" money on news programming; it is like a loss leader. When asked about the success of his runaway TV hit "The Cosby Show" Bill Cosby said: "its all demographics."
Life magazine once ran a photo feature about a mile long lake of oil in Iran. It seems the naive and hapless Iranians had done some exploratory drilling and hit a gusher and didn't know how to cap the well. The mile long lake of oil was depicted with the caption: "American Technicians had to Rush in to Control the Monster." What a fitting analogy for what goes on in the Middle East but it is also an analogy for the history of American broadcasting. Both formally educated and self taught engineers were enthralled by the young science of radio propagation. Amateurs were building powerful broadcast stations and were filling the air time with talented people and some programming was even sophisticated. Then the Federal Government rushed in to "control the monster." This is the founding of the FCC. It is telling to look at one of the first major networks NBC and how it was started. RCA and NBC were shell companies set up to protect the Marconi patents. The early days of radio were rough and tumble and patent theft and duplication were rife. A sterling example of this kind of theft was the loss by E.H. Armstrong of his design for the Super Heterodyne Radio. The super het was a compact design that used a local beat oscillator, set at a specific frequency, to beat sympathetically with incoming frequencies. The resultant signal was then captured and amplified after going through a sum and difference circuit. Armstrong lost everything including his life.
The big government protected and heavily capitalized outlets didn't lose anything however, they prospered. One of the early principle stock holders of RCA/NBC was The United Fruit Company of banana republic fame. Marconi, it should be mentioned, was a fascist. So, to borrow a phrase from Chevrolet the "Heartbeat of America," NBC, was pumping out propaganda from the CIA connected latifundistas of United Fruit on fascist designed circuitry. Somewhere there was a shift between the Latifundistas and the Military Industrialists as evidenced by the purchase of NBC by General Electric. By the way, the Latifundia were very large land holders that controlled, for a time, the Roman Senate. They are still with us, however, as evidenced above. The Junker's in Germany would fit this bill as well.
The economic model that Rather blames on the passing of good journalism is simply not true. Newspapers were making a killing when they had investigative journalists. Up until recently, that is after all the deregulation, newspapers were making around 15% (fifteen per cent) on their capitalization. This is a really good return. No, these things, news and news gathering and investigative entities, were taken down; they were intentionally dismantled to bring us the Pravda like model that we have today. It is said that the Soviets developed a knack for reading the ironically named Pravda (Russian for Truth). Sometimes, for a lark, look for planted stories in the News.


"No, these things, news and news gathering and investigative entities, were taken down; they were intentionally dismantled to bring us the Pravda like model that we have today."

A mawkish screed

I second that. Good analysis, Peter ORourke.